Courage, common sense, and fortitude in times of terror

Scary times call for courage

Fresno Bee, December 12, 2015

These are terrifying times. Mass violence plays across our screens. Frightened people want reassurance. And fearmongers manipulate anxiety. But dread is no substitute for deliberation.

The world’s philosophical traditions teach us to temper trepidation. Here is some practical advice from the ancient philosophers. Acknowledge the inevitability of suffering. Don’t dread evil. Accept what is beyond your control. Avoid panic. Minimize violence. Overcome hate.

But panicked, violent and hateful proposals abound. Some call to ban Muslim visitors. Others want to carpet-bomb the Islamic State. Some encourage us to arm ourselves.

Bombs and bans won’t build a better world. For that we need courageous commitment to democratic and humane values. We also need to understand the nature of fear and its role in political and moral life.

Fear undermines mental health. It clouds judgment. And it feeds on itself. Scare mongering is useful as a rhetorical tool. But reactionary panic makes for bad policy and risks betraying central values.

Wisdom requires courage, justice and moderation. Moral decisions depend upon calm reflection. A key to wisdom and equanimity is careful consideration of the object of our fears. It turns out that we often fear the wrong things.

PHILOSOPHICAL FORTITUDE FREES US FROM REACTIONARY OUTRAGE AND ALLOWS US TO BUILD A BETTER WORLD, ONE FEARLESS STEP AT A TIME.

Consider the risk of mass violence. Since 1982 there have been 73 mass shootings in the United States, resulting in nearly 600 deaths. If we add in the fatalities from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and other terror attacks on US citizens, we end up with fewer than 5,000 deaths from mass shooting and terrorism during the past 33 years.

Even one mass shooting is horrible. We should work to end these atrocities. But there is no reason to panic.

Other things are much more dangerous. There are around 16,000 homicides and 38,000 poisoning deaths every year. Approximately 2,000 people are killed annually by weather-related causes. More than 33,000 people are killed yearly in vehicular traffic.

We accept the risk of driving, while taking common sense precautions: drive carefully and buckle up. But no one is panicking about traffic deaths. No one is calling for background checks on vehicle ownership or radical changes in the speed limit. No one is calling for a ban on alcohol or drunken driving, even though drunken driving is much more deadly than terrorism. Drunken drivers kill 28 people every day – more than 10,000 people per year.

Some fears are magnified because we associate them with evil. Death by terrorism seems worse than death by drunken driving. Fear of evil seems more dreadful than fear of accidental death. But one wonders why that matters: When you are dead, you are dead.

Rhetoricians manipulate our fear of evil. They also manipulate our hopes and dreams. Hope is, in a sense, the opposite of fear. Hope can moderate fear. But unrealistic hope also clouds judgment. We hope that war, crime and atrocity will be abolished. We hope that politicians will behave themselves. We hope that rationality will prevail. We hope that evil will disappear. Or we hope that strangers will conform to our expectations.

BOMBS AND BANS WON’T BUILD A BETTER WORLD.

But history dashes these hopes. We should give up hope for a perfect, risk-free world. Evil people will always exist. Idiocy often overcomes common sense. Politicians routinely fail to impress. And diversity is a fact of life. We may wish things were otherwise. But wishing does not make it so.

Like fear, hope is a tool of demagogues that is used to hoodwink and manipulate. The danger of hope is that when idealistic hope crashes on the rocks of reality, despair sets in. Cynical hopelessness is as dangerous as ruthless idealism.

The key is moderation. Equanimity develops from understanding the nature of hope and fear. Fear is useful – when it is based on facts and prevented from becoming paranoia. Hope is also useful – when it is modest and limited in scope. Without moderation, however, hope and fear overwhelm good judgment.

A temperate mind is immune to the buffeting winds of fortune and the alluring buzz of political hot air. Wisdom teaches that evil is unavoidable, suffering is inevitable, panic is counterproductive, and good judgment is difficult and rare. Understanding this can liberate us from fear. Philosophical fortitude frees us from reactionary outrage and allows us to build a better world, one fearless step at a time.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/article49219050.html#storylink=cpy

Misguided War on Liberal Arts

Candidates short-sighted war on liberal arts

  • Political attacks on philosophy prompt a philosopher to reply
  • Liberal arts education is a key to progress in troubled times
  • Citizens benefit from training in critical thinking and moral educatio

Fresno Bee, November 27, 2015

Last month, Jeb Bush suggested that a liberal arts degree was a waste of time. “That philosophy major thing,” he said, “that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-Fil-A.”AP_jeb_bush_2_jt_150218_16x9_992

Marco Rubio made a similar point at a recent debate. He said we need “more welders and less philosophers.”

But in these troubled times, we need more philosophical reflection and less heated rhetoric, more careful analysis and fewer glib one-liners. A broad liberal arts education teaches us to think. Good thinking is essential for citizens of a free, self-governing democracy.

Consider the question of war against the Islamic State.Sen. Rubio describes this as a “clash of civilizations.” He said, “They do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East – they hate us because of our values. … They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we’re a tolerant society.”

Claims like these deserve critical scrutiny. Is this really a clash of civilizations? How can we know why someone hates us? And what should we do about it? To answer those questions, we need philosophers, historians and students of religion and culture.

The study of the world’s religions sheds light on the idea of a clash of civilizations. Muslims, Jews and Christians share common roots and a long history of intolerance and warfare. These traditions share an ideal of holy war, crusades and jihad. They also contain a common hope for peace, shalom or salaam. Understanding the similarities and differences among these traditions develops through broad historical, cultural and philosophical inquiry.

A liberal arts education also helps us understand the value of religious toleration. Secular systems of government evolved in recent centuries as a response to ongoing religious violence. Theocratic regimes are throwbacks, seemingly at odds with the general logic of historical progress.

But does history have a logic? And are we wise enough to figure out what to do next? Historians warn against such broad generalizations. Consider this: the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Middle East among European powers was hammered out 100 years ago. A century of European and American intervention has left us with a mess. Perhaps we are not as wise as we think we are.

Jeb Bush has urged an all-out war against the Islamic State. But in order to decide that war is justified, we need a substantial amount of philosophical reflection. We need to ponder – among other things – the justice of the cause, the question of proportionality, the issue of how noncombatants will fare and the plan for postbellum peace.

NO MATTER THE TRADE OR PROFESSION, WE NEED CITIZENS WHO UNDERSTAND THAT WAR, TERROR AND HATE DESTROY UNDERSTANDING AND KILL HOPE.

Understanding all of that requires training in ethics, political science and history. To make sure that our soldiers fight morally appropriate wars, we need better liberal arts education – not less of it.

Indeed, a liberal arts education is likely part of the long-run solution for the war on terrorism. The root cause of war and terrorism is, after all, bad philosophy. Extremism, demagoguery, ignorance and moral blindness are cured through education. The best cure for bad ideas is better ones.

A broad liberal arts education produces critical, virtuous and responsible citizens. Science grounds us in facts about geography, biology and the physical world. History provides context for understanding current events, while reminding us that progress can be made. Music, literature and poetry deliver transcendent joys that unite us despite our differences. The study of the world’s religions shows us that there are diverse paths to a meaningful life. Ethics teaches us to distinguish good from evil. And philosophical training reminds us to be curious, courageous, compassionate and modest about what we know.

Good education helps to create good people. In order for society to function, we need welders – fast food cooks, lawyers, and even politicians – who are honest, trustworthy and kind. No matter the trade or profession, we need citizens who understand that war, terror and hate destroy understanding and kill hope.

It is true that there are very few paying jobs for full-time philosophers. But welders, cooks, and politicians – indeed all citizens – benefit from philosophical insight and broad education. We need better thinking and more enlightened citizens – more liberal arts and less hot air.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/article46737230.html#storylink=cpy